Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

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Between playful and profound – New York with Iván Fischer

Tue Apr 6 2010

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Now time for some music by Felix Mendelssohn's good friend, Prince Albert (i.e. Queen Victoria's husband).… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…


How does one reawaken a concert programme last performed, as was the situation with our first New York concert, some three weeks earlier? In the case of a conductor like Iván Fischer, with a mixture of playful concepts which help to unlock profound ideas; and, in the case of a slightly jet-lagged orchestra, by allowing us to be carried by the strength of the music and forget that an 8pm concert in New York is, in fact, a midnight concert in the UK (North America went over to summer-time a week earlier than Europe, so for that particular week there was only a four-hour time difference).

OAE and BFO at Lincoln Center

In London, the two programmes with Iván formed part of our Beethoven Cycle which is taking place this spring (2010). However, in New York, it was a very different kind of Beethoven cycle. The result of a brainchild, nurtured by Jane Moss (vice-president of programming at Lincoln Center) for the past six years, had Iván conducting all nine symphonies in four consecutive days; with OAE on original instruments for the first two concerts (symphonies 2 & 3 and symphonies 1, 8 & 5) followed with his own orchestra, the Budapest Festival Orchestra, on conventional instruments, also performing two concerts (symphonies 4 & 7 and symphonies 6 & 9). Unfortunately, OAE had to return home without hearing either the BFO rehearsals or concerts. However, members of the BFO did come to our second rehearsal and this provided an opportunity for a group photo featuring both orchestras. It was great to meet our Hungarian colleagues and a special pleasure for me to meet up again with Gaby, Iván’s wife and superb flute player.

Seeing Gaby reminded me of a visit that she, Iván and their two children made to our house. It also reminded me of Iván’s ability to combine the playful with, in this case, not profound ideas but watery dynamics. Let me explain: Iván had brought his whole family for the summer to Glyndebourne where he conducted Cosi fan Tutte a few years ago. I thought it would be fun to show his young children a popular and local tourist attraction, Pooh Sticks Bridge, the original weathered-oak bridge which features in A.A.Milne’s stories of Pooh Bear (www.poohsticksbridge.com). As you all know, the game is a competition to see which stick floats under the bridge the quickest. Two competitors drop sticks simultaneously on the upstream side of a bridge and run to the other side to see which one emerges first. Normally, this is a game played by the younger generation. However, with Iván, children and wives were forgotten as we – I was dragged into his research project – tested all the variables for the next half-an-hour: sticks dropped vertically, sticks dropped horizontally, sticks dropped from the centre of the bridge or into the side of the stream, large sticks versus small sticks, etc., etc. I’ve been to Pooh Sticks Bridge many times with children, but this occasion is the one I shall never forget.

And so it is with Beethoven. Iván has a way of presenting simple but highly evocative images that one simply can’t forget. So for example, an ‘old and rusty screw’ that has to be eased out with enormous care and great determination (the rising semi-tone passage in the lower strings in the Menuetto of Beethoven 1) which provides us with an almost tactile image of the effort required to play this seemingly simple passage with intensity, whilst remaining true to the piano dynamic. Or the subito fortissimo wind chord in the Trio of Beethoven 2, where Iván suddenly announces: ‘I hate my position here, because I destroy all the fun!’ This announcement results in incredulous laughter from the orchestra for there are not many conductors who admit as much. However, Iván’s purpose becomes clear: if he gestures the subito fortissimo, his sharp, preparatory movement spoils the element of surprise for the audience – thus it is agreed that he will give a small, sharp gesture hidden from the audience’s view, and the winds will have the courage to enter with an almighty subito fortissimo – the effect is electric!

At the end of the funeral march in Beethoven’s Eroica symphony, the musical elements break up and are uttered in hesitant phrases by violins, cello/basses, oboes and horns. Iván asks us to remember the funeral in the film The Godfather where, as the coffin is being lowered into the ground, all the protagonists look around wondering who the next person is going to be. This image not only evokes the complete desolation of this moment in Beethoven, but is also a subtle reminder to the players not to ‘look around’ and wait for their fellow musicians to sound this terrifyingly quiet passage but to have the courage to play with gentle conviction. I should add that Iván loves acting and all these images are delivered with a droll Hungarian accent and eye movements reminiscent of his namesake, Ivan Grozniy in the film by the Russian director Sergei Eisenstein.

Of all the symphonies in our two New York programmes, it was, perhaps, Beethoven’s fifth symphony which made the greatest impact. Iván reminded us of the effect this symphony had on all subsequent symphonic writing. Rather than being a vehicle for a balanced and complementary set of movements, Beethoven’s fifth becomes a journey from beginning to end – from the doom-laden opening in the minor key to the glorious, celebratory mood of the C major finale – a break from the classical balance of earlier symphonic writing to the use of music as a vehicle for understanding the human struggle (the beginning of so-called romanticism). For the final movement, Iván asked us to ‘shout’ out our individual parts as if we were part of a revolutionary crowd – it felt like chaos, probably sounded a little chaotic but, if the roar and standing ovation of the New York audience was to be believed, the image worked.

Nicholas Logie, viola

One Comment

  • Saw the entire series – you all were fantastic for nights 1 & 2 – 4th mvmt 8th was the best I’d ever heard in any recording – 5th rocked – thanks for coming!

    Ed C Tue Apr 6 2010